Ever since I saw Angela Gheorghiu in the title role of Barbara Willis Sweete’s brilliant opera film Romeo and Juliette, this soprano has been on my must-see-no-matter-what list. However, seeing Gheorghiu live is much easier said than done. A diva in every sense of the word, Gheorghiu is mostly famous for her impeccable breath control, her wide spectrum of nicknames ranging from Angela Asolutta to Draculette (the latter probably inspired by her dark Transylvanian beauty), and finally (and much to the disappointment of her fans), her frequent gig cancellations.

Cosmin Cogu
Cosmin Cogu

Therefore, when on Saturday night the lights went down over a completely packed Kennedy Center opera house, I congratulated myself: I had done it – in a mere moment I was about to see Angela Gheorghiu live.

Nothing says more about a vocal artist than a solo recital. The beauty of this performance genre lies in the singer’s freedom to present a program of his or her personal choice, and through it, to open up as an artist and a musician.

For her house debut Gheorghiu prepared a program with a concept. Treating the DC audience to a charming evening of all-time opera favorites by Handel, Mozart, Massenet, Puccini and others, the artist centered the program around her three favorite operatic themes: romance, drama and passion.

During a relatively short recital with only one intermission between the two parts, the soprano managed to change into not one, not two, but three dazzling evening gowns. Even though at first this fashion splurge seemed like a mere couture parade, as the concert progressed it became clear that Gheorghiu simply used her fancy gowns as costumes to illustrate each of the three operatic themes that she presented.

Even though her opening number, Handel’s ‘Ombra Mai Fu’, delivered with some insecurity in the lower register, left me wondering if Baroque romance was actually within this soprano’s comfort zone, her gleaming tone and soaring high notes in Mozart’s ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ quickly erased this impression. Ravishing in her coral taffeta ballgown, Gheorghiu presented the perfect image of a graceful and adorably capricious romantic heroine.

During the intermission, the audience members spent their time guessing the color of Gheorghiu’s next gown. By then we had already realized that the color of the dress would also determine the thematic direction of the evening. However, it was not until the artist came on stage wearing a richly sequinced black gown that we knew: we were up for a journey to Gheorghiu’s most favorite element – the drama.

Boasting an enormous vocal range and seemingly endless breath, the artist performed selections from operas by Massenet, Spontini and Catalany with elegance and utmost attention to detail. However, the defining moment of the night was Gheorghiu’s heartfelt portrayal of a grief-stricken Manon, whose aria ‘Allons! Il le faut!’ was delivered with a fusion of touching simplicity and emotional force. This was one of the rare occasions when a foreign aria needed no translation. Gheorghiu’s luminous voice and Massenet’s breathtaking music played by the Washington National Opera orchestra, under the baton of a keen and highly intuitive Eugene Kohn, said it all.

Having changed into a figure-fitting golden gown, the artist concluded her recital with a passion-themed encore, which mostly consisted of selections from popular musicals. Of particular interest, however, was Gheorghiu’s fiery rendition of Lara’s ‘Granada’, which brought the house down after the artist decided to spice it up with graceful flamenco moves.

While driving home, with every sublime note of the concert still ringing in my ears, I felt immensely grateful for the opportunity to hear this consummate artist sing and for the great gift of inspiration that she so generously shared with all of us that glorious evening.